Quarterdeck 3.1
Relief showing ships which participated in the expedition to Punt. This mural and others adorn the walls of Queen Hatshepsut's temple at Deir el-Bahri, Egypt.

Queen Hatshepsut's expedition to the Land of Punt: The first oceanographic cruise?

by Sayed Z. El-Sayed
Queen Hatshepsut ruled Egypt from ca. 1503 to 1480 B.C. In contrast to the warlike temper of her dynasty, she devoted herself to administration and the encouragement of commerce. In the summer of 1493 B.C., she sent a fleet of five ships with thirty rowers each from Kosseir, on the Red Sea, to the Land of Punt, near present-day Somalia. It was primarily a trading expedition, for Punt, or God's Land, produced myrrh, frankincense, and fragrant ointments that the Egyptians used for religious purposes and cosmetics.

We do not know when the ships returned to Kosseir, but Hatshepsut herself informed us in lengthy inscriptions on the walls of her beautiful terraced temple at Deir el-Bahri, near Luxor in the Valley of the Kings, that "the ships were laden with the costly products of the Land of Punt and with its many valuable woods, with very much sweet-smelling resin and frankincense, with quantities of ebony and ivory . . ."

The queens' artists immortalized this homecoming in murals on the walls of the temple, which depict not only potted myrrh saplings and sacks of frankincense, but also fish and other fauna and flora collected during the expedition. The drawings on these walls are so accurate that the famed ichthyologist, the late Carl Hubbs of Scripps Institution of Oceanography, told me that he was "able to identify the fish to the species level" from the drawings!

The ancient Egyptians with their penchant for accurate information, and for making precise observations of the environment, had amassed a store of knowledge of the geography, hydrography and meteorology which enabled them to undertake seafaring ventures. In order to navigate to Punt, they must have known the navigational peculiarities of the Red Sea, in which northerly winds bring rough weather from the end of June to December while mild southerlies prevail the rest of the year.

We do not know whether or not Hatshepsut sent other expeditions to the Land of Punt, but later Egyptian monarchs reached the south of Africa and beyond. Herodotus informs us that Necho II, King of Egypt (ca. 600 B.C.) sent Phoenician sailors down to the Red Sea and along the coast of Africa. In the third year they returned through the Pillars of Hercules (Strait of Gibraltar), and reached Egypt via the Mediterranean Sea.

According to William A. Herdmann, author of The Founders of Oceanography and Their Work (1923), it is doubtful whether the circumnavigation of Africa was repeated until Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope from the west two thousand years later, in the 15th century.

Accurate depictions of Red Sea creatures from the reliefs at Queen Hatshepsut's temple in Deir el-Bahri, Egypt.

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Updated July 24, 1995